Social Media Policy – Fad, Fiction or Fundamental?

I recently traveled to Fort Bragg, North Carolina for the honor of meeting with members of the Army’s public information team to talk about online and social media.  While there, the discussion obviously included a review of Web2.0 tools and how they can be applied in their daily work.

Within the context of discussing the tools, a consistent theme that my colleagues and I heard from the group was that there are limitations on access to the social media toolset.  The discussion felt all too familiar.  The more we talked, it became clear that there are somewhat inconsistent and even contradictory policies on how or if members of the Army can use these social tools. 

The group was comforted to know that the military isn’t the only group wrestling with the risk/benefits of the social Web.  Many in corporate America are also contemplating how best to introduce the use of social tools into an organization, while accounting for the perceived negative results.   

While many of these tools have been around, they are still early in the adoption cycle among many large organizations, including the US military.  Even so, ignoring the medium isn’t going to make it go away, and in fact, the tools of the new Web are more important than ever to those communications personnel who operate on the front lines of the information flow.


Addressing the Change

Because of the shift in how we get and convey information, and the growing influence of our connected peer group, companies of all sizes need to determine how they will use the tools of the social Web to communicate with customers and other stakeholders.  Beyond which tools to use, companies must decide how those tools will be used within the company.  This is where a social media policy becomes helpful.


If you’re one of the few progressive companies that will allow the full exploration of the social medium, then you might not need to read any further.  But, if you’re a company, like most others, that is trying to understand the impact of the social Web on your company, customers and employees, I hope some of this will be helpful.


Defining the Undefined

The discussion around the use of social tools within the military is a broad one that includes all branches.  Hoping to provide a path forward for using these tools, Robert Carey, the chief information officer for the Department of the Navy, recently published what he describes as a memorandum on things to consider when considering social media:


The Department endorses the secure use of Web 2.0 tools to enhance communication, collaboration and information exchange; streamline processes; and foster productivity improvements. However, their application must not compromise data confidentiality and integrity.


The memorandum is brief by design and is intended to provide a framework of understanding about the use of social media, rather than an exhaustive mandate on how, when and why to use social tools.  There is also a two-part interview on Federal News Radio that offers more background on how the memorandum can be used.


“There are lots of things that this (Web2.0 tools) starts to scratch at that the present federal government processes are not set up to embrace just yet.  So, it will make us rethink how we are moving information and providing services to citizens or in my case war-fighters.” – Navy CIO Robert Carey (from FNR)


Some Guiding Principles

The issue that Mr. Carey tackles head-on is one that I see clients try to address.  The best thinking I have seen around social media policies has included the following guiding principles:

·         Encourage employees to use good judgment.  Make them aware of the fact that their job entitles them to information others don’t have.  Whatever they say on social sites becomes public and could have a negative impact on the company.

·         The genie is sitting on the bottle.  The tools are out there.  Employees will use them whether you mandate specific use or not.  It’s better to provide them with the information about appropriate use rather than telling them they can’t use them.

·         Look to define the context rather than the details around appropriate use of social media tools.  It’s as important to outline appropriate use and benefits as it is to define inappropriate use and the risk of using social media.  Much like Mr. Carey’s approach, if you focus the lens too squarely on the limits, you’ll miss the magic of the benefits.

·         Put resources behind the program.  A social strategy can bring you closer to your customers than you have been able to in the past.  The greatest benefits I have seen is when a company mobilizes and staffs around social interaction with customers.  This type of relationship requires time and resources to develop.  Having your employees engage in social media multiplies your touch points and ears to the ground.  Enable them to do it.

Collaborate on a Solution

It’s certain that organizations will continue to struggle as they attempt to develop protocol around social media.  Legal, IT and HR will all play a role in helping to define the path forward.  But, everyone must also realize that these tools are not part of a fad that will go away if ignored.  The sooner you can get your organization to realize the better that the insight, understanding, collaboration and conversation these tools enable never goes out of style.  It’s better to embrace this shift now before you’re left behind.

Sources: Federal News Radio,, WebInkNow